In his 2018 book “The Written World,” author Martin Puchner says, “literature… has shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” Reviewing Mr. Puchner’s book, literary critic John Sutherland says, “We are what we read.”
Indeed. As someone who reads two to three books a week, I cannot imagine what life would be like without them. Whether one reads for knowledge, for inspiration, for work, for pleasure or for escape, reading is a gift.
One of my old favorites was Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar,” (1955) definitely an escapist, classic love story. Although I was only 14 when I first read it, I’ve never forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Even though I subsequently read Wouk’s more highly acclaimed books, “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Winds of War,” Marjorie remains my favorite.
On the hunt for more good literature, I decided to ask several friends and acquaintances about their favorite books. Many referenced classics they grew to love in childhood.
For example, my minister friend Sharon Smith, once a high school English teacher then a corporate manager before becoming a minister at 50, clearly remembers, as a little girl, going into a bookstore in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal and after browsing in the children’s section, asking her mother to buy her a Bobbsey Twins book. She eventually read the entire series — 72 books published from 1904 to 1979, according to Wikipedia. These days, in addition to her ministerial duties, which include writing weekly sermons often based on books, Sharon leads a summer book club.
Barbara Stack, my oldest and closest friend, now living in Buffalo, says she loved “Heidi” (1880) by Swiss writer Johanna Spyri because of Heidi’s relationship with her grandfather, which reminded Barbara of her relationship with her own grandfather (who she says, “looked like a tall Harry Truman”).
My friend MaryAnn, a retired legal administrator who lives in San Francisco, said she loved “Little Women” because, “having two brothers and no sister, those girls became my family.” “Little Women,” originally published in two volumes in 1868 and ‘69, is again being made into a movie — for the eighth time — slated to open Dec. 25th; Emma Watson and Meryl Streep are among the cast members.
Similarly, my friend JoAnn Tracy’s favorite is “Love Medicine,” Louise Erdrich’s first novel (1984) because, says JoAnn, a Baltimorean retired from MPT, “it creates the world of a native American family [Chippewa] and reading it makes me feel I am a part of that family.”
As an only child, my Baltimore friend Heather Perkin said she loved the Zane Grey books of a century ago because she loved horses and had two of her own. But, she admits, she could not finish Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” (1877) because “it was just too sad.”
Richard Brautigan’s “Revenge of the Lawn,” comprised of short, short stories written between 1962 and 1970, is still Paul Overly’s favorite. Paul, a senior administrator in the Baltimore City Health Department, say he read the book while in college, approximately 45 years ago. Today critics still call “Revenge of the Lawn” “radical, vibrant and funny as well as dark.”
Michael “Doc” Richardson, a long-time actor in movies made in Maryland and a Civil War buff, said his favorite book is Ralph Peters’ “Cain at Gettysburg” (2012), especially since Doc acted in “Gods and Generals,” a 2003 movie about the Civil War.
“The Prophet” (1923) by Kahlil Gibran has long been a favorite of my friend Lynne Miller, a former corporate benefits manager. “It briefly touches on all of life’s chapters,” explains Lynne, “and I find myself returning to it, especially at challenging times, for advice and counsel.”
Lynne’s husband Ed, former dean and CEO of Hopkins Medicine, says “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2016) is now a favorite. “One can read the complete history of the human gene, presented concisely and easily understood,” Ed says; he now is recommending “The Gene” to all his friends.
Doug Brady, retired from a post at Baltimore City Recreation and Parks under Mayor William Donald Shaefer, has been recommending Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936) for many years. Indeed, Doug says he has given the book to each of his six grandchildren on his or her 17th birthday.
Finally, Ralph Reed, a retired Baltimore electrician, says his favorite book is definitely the Bible, which he says he reads daily. And in today’s world, that book, both ancient and inspiring, may be the best read of all.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.” Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.